Yoga: Theory, Culture and Practice
Midterm October 18, 2010
image: Casey Grenier
other photos and documents found here.
Yellow at the Corner of Windsor and Hampshire:
The Theory, Culture and Practice of Art & Soul Restorative Yoga
Walking to my home in Cambridge one day I came to a complicated intersection, and as I waited for the white walking man to light up, I saw across the street a beautiful yellow building built into the irregular shape of the corner. Struck by its form, I went to get a closer look. The building was lined with handmade mosaics and painted over the door was “Art & Soul.” I picked up a brochure and found out that it was an art, performance and yoga studio. As I walked away reading the pamphlet, I saw a hand-painted “OBAMA” sign stuck in the side window. Something about the place resonated inside of me.
The building has been open for 27 years, co-founded by Annie Hoffman and Billie Jo Joy. There are also six other teachers that engage students in a range of yoga, improvisation, movement, art, and other special topics. There are weekly yoga practices, ranging from restorative, beginner, intermediate, and what they call “level 2.” There are some classes for certain types of people and other classes that have a mix of levels. The teachers all bring their own style to each class. They are all certified, some have done 20-plus years in yoga practice and research, and some have studied in India with the Iyengars. There are other teachers who are dedicated to art, improvisation, and movement classes, separate from the yoga classes. (Hoffman).
Art & Soul practices Iyengar yoga, a style of yoga developed from the teachings of B.K.S Iyengar. B.K.S Iyengar is an intellectual and spiritual master who wanted yoga to be a part of every aspect of life, and a part of anyone’s life. There is also emphasis on the precision of alignment in all of the asana postures. Designed props that are used throughout the practice, like belts, ropes, blankets, sandbags and other props, help this perfection of posture along. There is also an emphasis on sequencing; that certain poses need to come before or after other poses. (Iyengar).
I contacted Billy Jo Joy to talk about further research at her studio, and she was quick and friendly in her responses. I decided to go to a Restorative Yoga Workshop, meant for people experiencing sickness, fatigue, or sleeplessness, or suffering from injuries. It was advertised as also good for beginners or anyone looking for a relaxing and quiet experience.
When the Saturday of the workshop rolled around, I rode my bike to that yellow building and locked up on a post outside. I was greeted by Billy Jo, who was watering flowers in pots on the front steps. With one hand she held a simple cup full of water, and without stopping, she reached her other hand through to shake in an introduction. I stepped inside and a warm rush fell over my body. It was not hot, but comfortably warm. There were mats and blankets and props already set up in nice intervals along the floor. The space was small, intimate, but not cramped. There was a bench where people were taking off shoes, placing bags, and signing in on a small clipboard just sitting on the bench. The warm greeting and absence of ‘front desk’ made the place seem inviting. The cash register was just a brown wicker basket with checks and bills piled inside of it. This atmosphere seemed anti-corporate.
Everyone greeted Billy Jo as the class filled in with more people. I was probably the youngest person there, and the oldest was this very content, fit-looking woman with a full head of curly gray and white hair, whose age seemed to make her even more beautiful. I couldn’t really tell an average age of people, rather a range from about 21– 60 years of age, and we were all females.
The all-woman yoga staff attracts females, who could be looking for a comfortable place to engage in the sometimes very intimate and self-revealing practice of yoga. There is at least one male teacher advertised on their website and not the brochure, but he focuses on art rather than yoga. In Sivananda’s Thought Power he speaks of this phenomenon: “thoughts and feelings are like wireless messages broadcast in ether, and are received by those whose minds respond to such vibrations” (2). People tend to attract other people who are like-minded, other people who can respond to their thought vibrations. The bright yellow, hand-decorated building is inviting to the female aesthetic. Paisley, cream curtains hang in the windows. Mosaics of hearts and teapots and patterns adorn not only just the building, but the front steps, sidewalk, and nearby traffic light post. All of this unique cultural aesthetic would attract those who have the same taste.
The brochure, hanging in an outside mailbox for passerby’s to pick up, points towards the female orientation, and didn’t have the cleanness and structure of a more corporate company. The eccentric typefaces used for the headings of the different categories of workshops that Art & Soul offers are funky, different, and light-hearted. As a modern graphic designer myself, I might think of these choices as cheap or cliché in the work I engage in. I might use a mix of professionally designed serif and sans-serif typefaces, with a keen eye for detail. But even though I might not use them in my own designs, the typefaces used seem to fit in so well with the light-hearted decorations of the building. I remember playing with typefaces like them when I was younger: typefaces that look hand-made, ornamented, and dynamic. And the hand-drawn map on the brochure adds to the authenticity of the arts and craft aesthetic. This overall aesthetic of the building and documents also points to the Iyengar theory that yoga is for everybody. Instead of making the studio look exclusive, different than ordinary life, and totally unattainable and unapproachable, the aesthetic looks towards childlike art and eye-catching colors.
The atmosphere was very friendly. Not only Billie Jo, but also everyone who attended class seemed very respectful, and eager to learn and laugh. One young woman named Stephanie, an MIT law student, came right up to me and asked me if we could lock our bikes together, because she forgot her lock. So as our bikes got to know each other, class began. Some of us were simply sitting, others stretching, others chatting. The class started with three OM’s, the same I’ve experienced in yoga at Lesley, but the feeling was a bit different, because the Lesley class is gender-mixed. The female-exclusive Art & Soul class was higher pitched, and I could almost hear my lower voice more distinctly.
This Restorative yoga workshop was two and a half hours long. Probably the longest class I’ve ever attended, I thought it might become boring, or I might be over-aware of how much time was passing and be distracted by the thought. The style of this particular workshop was relaxation, and I was able to unwind so much that time was not an issue at all. There was only one point in the workshop that I realized the passing of time when the sun set over the building tops and the street lights started to turn on.
I was able to realize the sunset and lights because the studio did not try to block out the outside world. Although there were curtains over the large, street-level windows for privacy, they hung on simple rods, letting light creep in through the cracks and crevasses. There were stained and iridescent glass panels that lined the tops of the windows, letting in soft, natural light. Billy Jo kept the door cracked open and left upper windows open, to let the fresh air blow through the room. As the class went on, and the crisp, New England, Fall night swept over the city, Billy Jo closed the door and adjusted the windows to keep the inside temperature comfortable. Like the enlightened Krishnamurti said, “All that is implied in meditation that is not divorced from our daily living” (8). Art & Soul does not divorce itself from daily living. Instead of trying to block the senses from any distractions, the studio is on a busy intersection, with trucks roaring by, cars honking, music playing, people talking, babies crying. The studio seems to be linking the practice of yoga with the inevitable culture of living in the city.
There was music playing for most of the yoga practice as well. When I first started to sit on my mat, I could hear soft bells ringing out for long tones, with a-rhythmical space in-between the tones. I was not completely focused on the music, which means the music must have been a good choice for yoga, because it was not the focus of the practice, but rather just helped in the relaxation. And this is usually hard to obtain for me, this inattentiveness to music, because I play a few instruments, sing, and like to call myself a musician. So, naturally my mind goes towards music; sometimes music is the only thing happening in my head, or I wake up with a song already playing, or my everyday thoughts are blended with riffs from favorite songs. I have never practiced yoga live with music, but the few times I have watched videos of yoga and there always seemed to be music in the background of the recording. Throughout the practice at Art & Soul there was also music involving, but not limited to, flutes, voices, tonal, nature noises, and Eastern chords, which include fourth step notes: notes completely unique to Eastern music, because they lay in between the notes we normally hear in Western music.
The asanas, poses, themselves were unlike anything I had ever done in yoga. Some sort of prop assisted every single pose we did. Even as we sat cross-legged for OM we were encouraged to use blankets for support. This is the opposite theory according to the classical text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which insists that the way to yoga involves yourself, using your body to gain higher consciousness, with the guidance of a guru, and nothing else (Mukitobhananda). Mukitobhananda’s view on yoga implies that props would be out of the question, which is the exact opposite of Iyengar yoga, which utilizes props in many poses, including pranayama, breathing, poses. This prop technique requires set-up time that I have not normally practiced in the more ‘flowing’ practices of yoga I have experienced. Instead of ‘flowing’ from one pose to another, we set up props, watched as Billie Jo explained how to get in and out of the pose, and then tried it ourselves, and stayed in the poses for extended periods of time. It was the slowest yoga practice I’ve ever tried, but it did not seem drawn-out. The extra time spent in the pose allowed my body time to get used to the pose, and then use it to its best advantage to relax more and more in to the pose. Setting up for the pose was also key to the Restorative Yoga workshop, because the class was for people experiencing pain or injury. Billie Jo would get into the next pose in front of everyone, and it seemed like she would stay in the pose for a rather long time, usually having to explain that she spent so much time in the pose because she herself loved it so much. In this fashion, Billie Jo spent a lot of energy describing the pose and then going around to individuals to tailor the pose to their unique self. We would place rolled blankets under our heads, use bolsters under our stomachs, belts around our legs, and Billie Jo would place sandbags on our hips and hands. The theory is that the experience would be comforting, relaxing, and very different from yoga practices without props, and I found that to be true for myself.
Pranayama was also performed using props. This was a first for me as well. The class laid on tightly rolled blankets, suspending bodies in the air, resting feet on blocks, and letting chests and heads drop down to the mat below. This seemed to open up the lungs and I was able to relax a measurable amount, and my interrupted breathing patterns seemed like the longest and most controlled I’ve ever experienced. I quote, from The Science of Breath: “If breath influences both body and mind, then the rhythm and the rate of breath would reflect not only one’s physical condition, but it would also help to create it” (Rama). I really felt completely at ease after I practiced controlling the rhythm and rate of my inhales, exhales, and pauses between my breaths. I even spent the last quiet relaxation/meditation part of the class in the same position, totally relaxed. I have done this laying flat on the floor since high school, and it has always hurt my body, especially my lower back, but by utilizing props I was able to relax.
There was also an emphasis on imagination. Before many moves, especially towards the beginning of class, we were asked to imagine the movement first. Imagine moving our head, and then try to move our head after we imagined it for a while. Billie Jo would also ask us to be very aware of the imagined reality, if there were colors, if there were sounds, if it differed from actual reality. The Katha Upanishad is quoted by Ravindra: “What is within is also without. What is without is also within. He who sees differences between what is within and what is without goes evermore from death to death” (5). This quote speaks to the inner and outer experience, the inner and outer body, and that there must be an integration of the two or only death can prevail. A more modern approach to this is the word ‘imagination.’ By telling people to use their imagination, Billie Jo is trying to focus the practicers’ mind on what they think is happening, and what is actually happening. She would also reminded us to look at our positioning from time to time: is the arm you thought was aligned with your shoulder while eyes closed, actually aligned with your shoulder when you open your eyes?
Practicing in this manner allowed time for laughter. I have never laughed so much during yoga. The time setting up for poses allow for a few topic points to be discussed, and Billie Jo always cracked a joke or two, or simply was wonderful in her ways that we had to laugh. The light-hearted aesthetic of the yellow building and brochures reflected well the reality of the lighthearted yoga practice actually inside of the building. This points towards the yoga way of thinking of the inside and outside body, and connecting the two. The outside, yellow, physical exterior of the building was matched by the inside, intangible feeling within it.
Art & Soul Restorative Yoga was a truly relaxing, wonderful experience for me. The cultural aspects of the class point to the female aesthetic of many ages, attract respectful and light-hearted humans to come, and connects to living in the city. The Iyengar-based yoga theories include using props, imagination, music, and slow time to relax the body and drive away injury. I simply can’t wait to get back to Art & Soul to practice yoga again.
Hoffman, Annie and Joy, Billie Jo. Art & Soul Yoga. artandsoul.com
Iyengar, B.K.S. The Official Website of B.K.S Iyengar. bksiyengar.com
Krishnamurti, J. This Light in Oneself. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
Mukitobhananda, S. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Bihar, India: Bihar School of Yoga. 1993.
Rama, S., Ballentine, R., and Hynes, A. “Why Breath?” Science of Breath. Honesdale, PA:
Himalayan International Insitute, 1981. (1-22).
Ravindra, R. The Spiritual Roots of Yoga. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press. 2006.
Sivananda, Swami. Thought Power. India: Divine Life Society, 1996.
other photos and documents found here.